Amanuensis Monday: Perms, Driver Ants, and a Crazy Man--the Buerers in Africa 1948

My maternal grandparents start 1948 in the Belgian Congo as missionaries with no less drama than before. I've edited a lot of what my grandmother wrote and pulled out the things I find most interesting. In the first half of 1948, my grandmother talks of packages received, visits from other missionaries, and travels to Idiofa to go to the post office. She mentions several services were held and how my grandfather worked on a fellow missionary’s roof. They also realized their drinking water had become contaminated and began boiling it. She is pregnant for the fourth time.

January 11

This is my birthday. I got a set of cooky (sic) cutters and an alarm clock from the girls. Mamma sent a book of games, a box of candy and a permanent wave. Clarabelle sent a box of powdered sugar.

Harry helped me with the permanent on Wednesday. It is nice to have it but it didn't turn out extra well. On Monday two boxes came from Mamma. There were lots of gifts for the kids.

Make A Million  game from 1935. 

Make A Million game from 1935. 

Friday and Saturday evenings I went to Browers house and played “Make a Million.” Mamma wrote that Bob gave Janet Smith a diamond for Christmas.

Friday our beds finally arrived. We put up the girls’ cots and Harry made a temporary bed from crate boards for our new spring. It certainly feels good to sleep on good beds.

February 1

Monday just before noon we had a bad storm. It blew the church down flat. The roof blew off the print shop. Harry hurried to get some canvas to cover the paper but the things in the building got very wet and dirty. Soon afterward the rain stopped and the sun came out so we got all the paper spread out to dry. About four o’clock another rain came up and we had to rush to get everything under cover at the dispensary.

March 14

Lois walks by herself now.

March 28

Lois’ first birthday was Thurs. We had a cake and ice cream and she got some nice presents.

April 4

Peggy Ann learned to ride a two wheeled bicycle here. She rides very well.

April 11

We went down to the lake at Ishene Thursday afternoon. The girls had such a good time. I went in a kipoi….(Friday) evening Peggy Ann got malaria and has been pretty sick with fever and vomiting. Outside of that, we’ve been enjoying our visit.


April 18

Thursday was Nancy’s fifth birthday. We had a nice chocolate cake with white frosting covered with coconut. She got lots of gifts which she enjoyed very much.

Peggy Ann was sick again most of the week and didn't have school. I spent most of the week cleaning the house.

May 23

We sprayed the house good with DDT to try to kill the cockroaches.

June 13

I finished one maternity dress and cut out another.

June 20

Today is Peggy Ann’s seventh birthday. We had chicken and a nice birthday cake. She received many lovely gifts. We went to Idiofa for a service at 8 but only a few showed up. We were able to get our mail in Idiofa and returned for the service here.

I’ve been doing a lot of sewing. Made another dress and have a third one party done. Am still going through boxes from the storeroom.

Harry made a front seat for the car. It certainly helps a lot.

Daddy sent a Donald Duck wrist watch for each of the girls.

Peggy Ann finished Second Grade.

June 27

I’ve been giving Nancy Kindergarten every morning.

I finished another dress for myself, one for Peggy Ann, a couple sheets, a couple aprons for the girls and two kimonos for the baby, and a basket lining for the baby basket.

We had a meeting at Mpendi this afternoon. The people were very attentive.

July 4

Yesterday afternoon we went to Matende for their conference. There are 35 adults here and 22 children. It certainly is nice to see so many white people and the meals are delicious. We had roast beef for dinner today. We stopped to get Mrs. Haller on the way.

We got some snapshots back Friday. Some were taken on Lois’ birthday. They were all quite good.

Petelo came to work here the first of the month.

July 11

The autoharp came and we are learning to play it. This morning we had a service in Idiofa. There were over forty people out. We also got a couple more boxes from the post office including one from mamma with our Singspiration records. They sound real good. She also sent a nice new dress for me.


July 25

Peggy Ann had sores on her fingers that were getting awfully sore so Thursday we went to see the doctor at Idiofa. He gave us some medicine containing ether that is helping them.

August 8

Solomon the teacher’s house burned down. We went out but couldn't do anything.

We've had a lot of trouble with driver ants this week. Thursday night they got in our bed and were all over the bedroom. Friday night they were very bad, especially in the bathroom. We killed thousands of them with DDT.

This morning Harry went to Idiofa alone but the people didn't come to have a meeting.

August 15

We've been bothered all week by a crazy man who comes around two or three times a day and won’t go away. Writing to the chief doesn't do any good so now we've written the official.

I made a dress for Nancy.

Peggy Ann has had some bad sores on her fingers for some time but they are clearing up at last.

I've spent parts of three afternoons filling enough quinine capsules to take with us to Vanga.

August 22

Harry helped give me a Toni permanent yesterday.

I almost finished another dress for Nancy.

We've been getting so many eggs this week—more than we've had for a couple of years.

Amanuensis Monday: The Thieves Come in the Night: The Buerers in Africa 1947

When you read a person's diaries, the results can be ambiguous. One one hand, the words you see belong to that person alone, and you can catch glimpses into their hearts and minds. But the words and thoughts are also very one-sided. And I'm finding as I read my grandmother's words, I'm conflicted and confused about what she says. Sometimes I get offended. But I think I gain some clues into what their lives were like in the mid to late 1940s in the Belgian Congo.

Nancy, Vickie, and Peggy

Nancy, Vickie, and Peggy

All of her life, my grandmother longed to be a missionary. No calling could rise above sending yourself off into the mission field to win souls to Christ. But I think once she got there, she was stunned and dismayed. They suffered from a lot of sickness. And loneliness. And from what I read, I believe she settled into a depression she never quite got out of. 

I haven't read further in her diaries to see what lies ahead. And I'm just going to let her words stand on their own for now. I do not transcribe everything, as some of the accounts are very mundane. So I'm going to give you the "meat" of everything in the later half of 1947.

In April and May, my grandmother writes a lot about things they received in the mail, visits from other missionaries, and schooling the other missionary children (“I’ve been helping Marjorie with Latin and Algebra every morning.”) She also says: "Harry started work on printing tracts on a multigraph Angus had...We sent the push push to Tshene for our furniture. It came back Thursday with our stove, icy ball, and baby bed. We received eight boxes Monday and Tuesday. Among other things were lots of dried fruit and puddings...I fired our wash boy, Salankango, and hired Mkumbu in his place. He is a lot quieter and seems to do just as well..."

June 1947

The dry season has come. We can even feel our skin getting dryer.

An icy ball

An icy ball

We have been making ice cubes in the icy-ball. Friday we gave one to each of a group of natives. It was comical to watch them dance and yell as they felt the cold in their hands and mouths.

We’ve been having trouble getting enough water. Our water boy was called to Idiofa by the official the end of May and we can’t get anyone to take his place. I’ll be glad when he comes back.

Tuesday night a thief cut the strings around the palm poles of our storeroom and broke in and stole a suitcase full of things I was saving for the girls for Christmas. Harry offered 50 francs to the person who found it and we got it back before Wednesday morning was over. The thief was Montobo, a mason’s helper. He didn’t know how to open the suitcase so he cut the whole bottom out, ruining our best suitcase. For quite a while he said he found it in the grass. Then he admitted stealing it but said the devil entered into him and made him do it.

Friday was Peggy Ann’s sixth birthday. We had fried chicken, birthday cake and jello. We made ice cream but it didn’t get hard until the next day. She got lots of nice presents and Nancy got a few things, too.

July 6, 1947

About 8 o’clock this morning Mr. and Mrs. Kliewer of Kafumba came with their truck to take us to Matende. Mrs. Haller and the Hutchisons from Mangringu went, too. We arrived there about 10 o’clock in time for the morning meeting. The theme for the day was “The Body of Christ.” We enjoyed the meetings very much. We had a big dinner of mashed potatoes and gravy, meatballs, carrots and peas, and apple pie, also applesauce. There were 16 adults and 10 children. In the afternoon Harry was one of the speakers and also spoke at a native meeting following.

We had a good supper of wieners and buns, pickles and baked beans with chocolate cake for dessert.

July 27, 1947

Monday we ate supper at Ronks and Tuesday noon and night we ate with Barbara. Monday evening we played Make-a-Million and Tuesday afternoon we went to the lake again. Nancy threw our camera in the water. In the evening we all went to Ronk’s house and ate popcorn, fudge, divinity, and taffy.

Wednesday morning I visited Aunt Viola’s old people’s class and Clarabelle’s children’s class. We left for Kifwanzondo right after dinner. We brought  home with us our chicken, a bunch of bananas, a basket of manioc, some limes, 8 baskets, four pineapples, a basket of pai pai, some raspberry bushes and bougainvillea plants, and some tapioca. We stopped at Idiofa to buy some food…

August 3, 1947

Peggy Ann lost her first tooth yesterday and I took out Lois’ first chigger today.

Nancy took her second worm treatment which is supposed to clear them up.

August 31, 1947

Friday morning the men started to put a new grass roof on our house.

Tango Andre came Tuesday to work for me. It’s nice to have a full time boy again.

Nancy and Peggy

Nancy and Peggy

September 7, 1947

This is our seventh wedding anniversary. We bought some antelope in the native market yesterday so we were able to celebrate. I made raisin pie for dessert.

September 21, 1947

I made a new rule in school that all time wasted had to be made up by attending school on Saturday. Attendance and attention has been much better since I started it.

September 28, 1947

Just after midnight Monday night Emmie called me and I went with her to Simone’s house. His wife gave birth to a baby boy. I didn’t get home until 4 o’clock. It was my first experience of seeing a baby born. Simone is so proud and excited about it. He made a mattress for the baby and is making a bed for him.

The natives all went to Kifwanzondo Monday to be examined by the doctor. Several of them had shots or lumbar punctures and were limping around for a couple of days.

October 5, 1947

Saturday morning we discovered that someone had broken into the print shop during the night. They had pushed the whole window frame out. They didn’t take much—a little paper and a few pencils. They were probably looking for money as Harry had paid the men from there the afternoon before.

Our movie camera came along with four other boxes from Mamma. We took 100 ft of colored pictures of the children this afternoon. Most of them were of the baby.

October 26, 1947

Peggy Ann is doing well in her embroidery lessons. She finished a bib for Lois on Friday and is going to start an apron for Nancy. They will make nice Christmas presents.

Peggy Ann finished First Grade Tuesday and started Second Grade the next day.

November 2, 1947

Tomorrow we will go to the lake for a week. We looked over the grounds today and watched the monkeys in the trees. It is very hot here.

One morning we woke up and found our clock was missing. It had been on a cupboard by the bed next to an open window. Late we noticed that Lois’ soap was missing, too. We had heard a noise during the night and Harry had gone out with a flashlight but had seen nothing. Our boys found the clock on the porch just outside the kitchen. The thief had evidently returned it earlier in the morning.

I found this picture in my grandmother's things. On the back it states "Anonymous Congo Missionaries (not related)." I found the picture so compelling I had to include it.

I found this picture in my grandmother's things. On the back it states "Anonymous Congo Missionaries (not related)." I found the picture so compelling I had to include it.

November 16, 1947

…our stove and mattresses had arrived. The spring and cots should be here soon. Harry put the stove up Thursday. It certainly is a beauty.

While we were at the lake a lot of Angus’ new house fell down. There was so much rain that week and this week, too.

November 23, 1947

I have had an ulcer in my mouth all week. It is so bad that I haven’t been able to open my mouth to eat the last few days. It even hurts to talk. I sent a note to Dr. Benoit but he was away.

Yesterday Miss Forel came here from Kintshua. She is a nurse. She said I must stop nursing the baby and drink milk for ten days. She thought it would heal in 3 days. She will stay until tomorrow. I had school all but Friday and it was too hard to talk then.

November 30, 1947

I was in bed all week except in the evenings when I sat in the living room by the light. The sore in my mouth improved gradually but is not completely healed yet. I am so weak from not eating that I can’t do much.

We didn’t celebrate Thanksgiving on Thursday but will celebrate it after I am able to eat again.

We got a box from mamma that had been on the way for six months.

Lois is gaining again now that we started feeding her every three hours. She weighed 14lbs. 14oz at 8 months.

December 7, 1947

Last Sunday evening Nancy started to throw up and was very sick for several days. She just lay in bed and wouldn’t talk or eat and got so thin. Her eyes were sunk way in and her stomach hurt. She got up yesterday.

Tuesday night Peggy Ann started to throw up and has been very sick although not quite as bad as Nancy was. She feels a little better this evening and ate a piece of toast. It’s the first she has eaten since Wednesday.

On Monday Dr. Benoit came to examine the natives. He said I could start eating and I got up a little the next day. He said he would send medicine for Nancy but must have forgot.

Mwembe our cook has VD so we are without a cook. I’m trying to get another one from Ishene.

We moved the baby’s bed into the living room so she wouldn’t disturb the sick girls. We borrowed Brower’s phonograph to play music to entertain them.

December 14, 1947

Peggy Ann got up last Monday and seems to be all right now. I have been having school all week.

Tuesday was Harry’s birthday. I made a cake which fell but we ate it anyhow.

I got another new cook. He has never worked in the house before and is rather slow. I don’t know whether he will do or not.

When Peggy Ann was sick she wanted a weiner roast so last night we had a picnic outside.

December 21, 1947

Yesterday harry made a Christmas tree from a cardboard box. Then we covered it with green paper. This afternoon we decorated it. I wrapped some of the presents and put them under the tree.

December 28, 1947

We had a nice Christmas. We didn’t get to open our gifts until after church…Harry had three teeth filled and I had one.

Amanuensis Monday: The Buerer's First Year in Africa, 1946-1947

The Buerers during their first year in Africa. Peggy, Vickie, Harry & my mother, Nancy.

In our research, genealogists continually run into brink walls. Information is missing, records can't be found, trails end abruptly. Not so with my maternal grandparents. My grandmother left so much information (all of which delights me), but sometimes I don't know where to begin. Or end. She began a diary when she arrived in Africa and religiously updated it every single Sunday. Sometimes the news is mundane, such as the weather or what they had to eat. So I've decided (for the most part) to leave that out and focus on the more interesting information. 

The Buerer girls & the Brower family. Johnny Brower, Nancy (my mother), Ruth Brower, Emma Brower, David Brower & Peggy.

In her first diary entry dated January 19, 1947, she begins: "We decided to try to keep a record of the most interesting events of our life here in Congo. Every Sunday we will try to summarize the week's happenings. (She then repeats the information from their journey from the US to Africa that I posted before.) ...The only other white people on the station are Angus and Emma Brower and their three children, Johnnie, David, and Ruthie. Every morning I teach Johnnie who has almost completed the first grade."

In February, she mentions my grandfather, Harry, became sick with malaria and fought that for most of the month. She also states "a leopard was seen in the woods by the water and one night came up to the station. Angus set a trap for him." Later that month, she mentions their Christmas presents finally arrived, in addition to hinting that she is almost done with her third pregnancy: "The doctor thinks I'm getting along all right but will have to wait four or five more weeks. He is treating Harry for malaria for a week first." On February 23, she says "Harry has been up the last half of the week. The doctor found that he has round worms, but hasn't started treating him for that yet...Harry has lost weight and looks quite peaked. His eyes have been sore lately, too." 

On April 21, 1947, she pens another letter describing their first year in the Congo. I've interspersed this letter with comments from her diary.

Nancy and Peggy with natives at Tshene, the original mission station of the Congo Gospel Mission.

Dear Friends:

Our first year in Congo is ended. It hardly seems possible that we have been here that long. The time has passed quickly. We have just returned from two months spent at Mukedi, a Congo Inland Mission station. They have a doctor and nurse there and they were certainly a big help to us. On March 25 the Lord gave us our third daughter, Lois Jean. She weighed seven pounds and five ounces. She has been such a good baby, sleeping most of the time. (In her diary, my grandmother describes her as "quite fat and her face is round as a ball (also her whole head.) Everyone says she has a beautiful color.") When she was two days old I came down with malaria and was quite sick for several days before we could break the fever. I was recovering nicely when I had a relapse on the ninth day and was even sicker than before. We kept the doctor pretty busy but we praise the Lord that He was watching over us and I am well again. In the weeks before Lois was born we were able to get a good rest...

One of the natives here asked Harry if his baby was a boy or a girl. When he heard that it was a girl he said, "That's good. If you have a boy you have to pay lots of money to get a wife for him but when you have a girl you get lots of money."

Nancy and Peggy, December 1946.

The need for gospel literature for the natives is very great. We have been wanting to begin some printing but all the parts to our press haven't arrived yet. However, Harry is beginning to print some tracts on a multigraph that was here. Soon he expects to start work on a song book to use in the church services. We have one but it has been revised and standardized so that we will use the same words as other fundamental missions around us who are using the same language.

Some of the packages were on the way a long time. We divided some cookies that we received and after I finished mine, Harry noticed worms crawling out of his. We looked at the girls' cookies and they were full of worms, too. We threw them out but I had already eaten mine. I felt funny the rest of the day.

While we were at Mukedi the rats were multiplying here in our house. When we got back we found evidences of them everywhere. Yesterday morning when we picked up the baby we found rat dirt all over her blanket. One or more rats must have gotten into her bed during the night. I must have neglected to tuck the netting in good all around. We are so thankful that she wasn't hurt.

We caught three of them last night and hope we can get them cleared out soon. The house is also overrun with cockroaches. They seem to be in everything...

My mother remembers this as the Magonchis (sp?), outlaws who would bang drums. I can't find any verification of these people or tribe.

It has been a long time since Christmas, but most of you haven't heard from us since before that. We had a fine service here on Christmas Day. The church was packed and people were standing in the aisles. The school children had decorated the church with palm leaves and bunches of wild flowers. It looked very nice even though quite different from American Christmas decorations. The natives from the mission had new clothes and came to church to show them off just as Americans do at Easter. The heathen came in their grass skirts as usual. About an hour before the service the natives from the mission formed into three groups and paraded around the station waving a flag and signing hymns and carols. One group didn't have a flag so they carried a red handkerchief tied to a pole.

We were still at Mukedi on Easter but they had a good service here. There were thirteen natives baptized. That is the first baptismal service we have had. Many of the natives came to the service with talcum powder all over their faces. Many times they paint their faces in connection with witchcraft but this time they were just imitating the white man--or should I say the white woman? They thought they looked beautiful.

Soon after Easter a church was organized here. Officers were elected and we expect to see the work to grow as the natives take over some of the responsibilities.

Are you remembering us in prayer? We know the language well enough now to speak in the services even though we aren't as fluent as we would like to be. We appreciate your encouraging letters and hope it won't be too long before we have them all answered. Your friends in Christ, Harry, Vickie, Penny Ann & Lois Buerer




Amanuensis Monday: Part 3: The Buerers in Africa: a letter excerpt from the early days

Idiofa via Kikwit
Congo Belge, W.C. Africa
November 25, 1946

Dear Friends,

Harry and Nancy in front of the second house.

A few days after we sent our circular letter to you in August, our outfit arrived. That is, it arrived with the exception of our trunk which was lost on the way to New York and one case which was lost at the ocean port in Congo. We have been notified that both have been found and are on the way, although neither has arrived yet. We were very happy to be able to unpack our dishes, bedding, books, and all the other things that we waited so long for. There were some disappointments, too, as we discovered that almost every box had been broken into any many things, mostly new clothing, stolen. Also, many dishes were broken and one box contained a quart bottle of ink and a large can of Flit which both broke and gave things a distinctive odor as well as color. However, these things were not very important and we have almost forgotten about them now.

About that time also, the rainy season started and we found our house living quarters (crossing out of "house" done by my grandmother in her letter) quite uncomfortable. Rain here is almost always accompanied by a strong wind and we could hardly find a corner in the house where we could keep dry. However, the stone house that had been under construction for several months, was almost finished so the Brower family moved into it and we moved into their former house. It, too, is a temporary building but it will keep us dry until another permanent house can be built. The house is made of clay with a grass roof and floor woven of split palm poles. It has two rooms, a bedroom and a dining room while just outside are a cookhouse kitchen (crossing out of "cookhouse" done by my grandmother in her letter) and two storerooms. Harry made several pieces of furniture from the wood in our packing cases which helps a lot as we had no place to put things.

Vickie cooking outdoors in Africa.

We are able to carry on conversations with the natives now if they don't talk too fast. Harry has been busy every day supervising the buildings that had to be done. A workshop, a boys' dormitory, a girls' dormitory, a garage, a bell tower, a print shop, another dwelling house, and a school have been started. Some of them are completed. Our former house had a porch as big as the house. This was enclosed, the partitions taken out and the building used as a church and schoolhouse.

Every morning at 6:15 the school children and the workmen attend chapel for a half hour. Some of the children attend school from 8 to 12 and others from 1 to 5. On Wednesday evenings there are prayer meetings and on Sunday there is the church service. The Word of God is given out in each of these meetings, sometimes by Angus Brower and sometimes by the native Christians who were trained at Tshene, our other mission station. We have six of them here helping as cooks, houseboys and school teachers.

Sometimes it seems as though nothing unusual every happens here but the past week we had had more than our share of excitement.

And unfortunately this is the only part of the letter I have. I really hoped for some swashbuckling intrigue and dastardly villains. But I have many, many diary entries, and there is no lack of excitement ahead for Harry and Vickie in Africa. (Worms in cookies, anyone? Stay tuned...)